The removal of the blasphemy clause in the Constitution in 2018 and the subsequent deletion of a related law in 2020 were thought to be the apogee of liberalism in Ireland. There was no place for such restraints on speech in a modern, liberal, democratic society. A Law Reform Commission’s Report back as far as 1991 opined that “there is no place for the offence of blasphemous libel in a society which respects freedom of speech”.
In 2017, Simon Harris, the Minister for Health, said the law at the time was “silly, a little embarrassing, and needs to be changed”. Even the Bishops of Ireland thought that it was obsolete. The Guardian newspaper said it was the latest in a ‘quiet revolution’ of seismic social and political changes in [Ireland].
In the lead up to the Referendum, there was a queue of voices, keen to state the importance of freedom of speech, and its connection to modern liberal democracy.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said that removing the crime of blasphemy from the Constitution will strengthen the protection of free speech and that the prohibition was intended to stifle the spread of ideas, which is ‘the lifeblood of a democratic and free society’. So much so, that ‘in a mature democracy, critique of ideas is tolerated and encouraged’.
On 20 December 2018, Flanagan published the general scheme of the “Repeal of Offence of Publication or Utterance of Blasphemous Matter Bill”. Debating the Bill, Senator Ned O’Neill said: “Why should we remove blasphemy? Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democratic society. Any constraints on it must be clear and limited. This is not the case with Article 40.” Current Labour leader and then Senator, Ivana Bacik was equally supportive of the free speech argument: “the blasphemy offence is not only outdated but also unnecessary. It is an undue encroachment on free speech.”
Interestingly, during the Seanad debate on the Bill to remove blasphemy from the Statute boosk, Senator Michael McDowell, presciently noted:
“I do not intend to oppose the Bill. I emphasise, however, that in getting rid of what is in the Defamation Act, we are stating categorically that it is henceforth lawful to disgust other people for the purpose of disgusting them and without any other excuse except for the pleasure of attacking their religion gratuitously in the most insensitive way. I wonder whether that will be a positive step forward.”
Fast forward (not too far) and that commitment to free speech alone no longer seems to be so strong or so important, while Senator McDowell’s prediction looks to have been spot-on. The latter is not the point right now, however obvious it may be. A quick survey of the various laws being promulgated as well as some of the actions of the State in various guises, points toward a significant narrowing of the support for free speech.
When it was advantageous, support for free speech was paramount. Most recognised that it was absolute save for the restrictions in the 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act and the general, vague, human rights conventions, caveats about public order and states of emergency.
Now, it is clear that the support was contingent. Removal of the blasphemy law was not about free speech but about a restraint on free speech that was no longer desired or liked. Citing free speech was a cipher.
Now, we have a the proposed Hate Crime and Hate Speech bills before the Houses of the Oireachtas, which will restrict speech in very arbitrary and subjective ways.
The Bill to restrict ‘protests’ within 100m of abortion centres will likely result in the same outcomes as in the UK – pedestrians harassed by police, under suspicion of praying in their minds, let alone praying out loud.
Ben Scallan highlighted the heavy handed nature of the fast-tracked Bill to prevent protests near centres housing people not in their regular domicile.
Enoch Burke being jailed for 3 months and now having a ruinous €700-a-day fine imposed for refusing to purge his contempt of court for refusing to acquiesce to a direction to use certain pronouns, in the same week a violent offender who attacked his female partner gets a suspended sentence. The Garda Commissioner talking about monitoring unidentifiable ‘far-right’ people with ‘sinister agendas’ while the country sees a surge in violent crime.
The Irish establishment’s Overton window is still there. In the 1950s it may have been a Catholic framing, enshrined in the Constitution, but in 2023, it is very much a liberal censoriousness that seeks to prohibit, restrict, minimise and marginalise, arguments that go against Government policy and preference.
At least with blasphemy, you knew where you stood. It was fairly clear what it was, and what were the sacred cows. Now it is a movable feast. With each new issue there is an acceptable position and an unacceptable one and the Government moves to close the arguments through the power of legislation or the issuing of fines through the courts.
You may agree that praying silently near an abortion provider is wrong and something one oughtn’t do. You may agree that protesting immigration policy at emergency accommodation centres is bad form and not the thing to do. You may agree that a child’s preferred pronoun ought to be supported and affirmed irrespective of religious belief or concerns about the damage it may cause. You may agree it is wrong, mean, sinful, or something else, to say negative things about people with protected characteristics.
Because you think this way, does that mean the law ought to prohibit all these things? Either there is a protection of free speech or there isn’t. Once the principle is ceded, and that it is acceptable for government to legislate against speech and protest that it does not like, that asks uncomfortable questions, that may be ugly and undignified, you cede your freedom.
Freedom becomes contingent on the preference of government. The preference of the majority. Or in Ireland’s case, with a Coalition of three partners, individually nowhere near a majority, freedom can be ceded to a minority party with 5 or 10% support who make their support to government contingent on having their policy preferences implemented.
What we are seeing is a re-introduction of blasphemy and obscenity laws – just with new standards and definitions. The freedom to object to and debate State or ‘establishment’ approved laws, policies and preferences is actively narrowing and quicker than the shackles of our so-called censorious past were cast off.
This is a Twitterisation of government policy and taking the increasingly fractious modes of engagement into legislative design. If they do not like what you are saying or what you are thinking, then if you are not blocked, unfriended or deplatformed you are at best pushed down people’s timeline. People with certain perspectives receive a coveted blue-tick verification through endorsement in establishment circles, presenting certain views as repectable, reasonable, progressive and others as controversial and ‘far-right’.
Twitter’s approach to stem harmful groups “tends to focus on defining these groups, designating them within a policy framework, detecting their reach (though group affiliation and behaviours), and suspending or deplatforming those within the cohort,” an internal project brief reads. A proposed Redirect project, before Elon Musk took over, was designed, instead, “to understand and address user behaviours upstream. Instead of focusing on designating bad accounts or content, we seek to understand how users find harmful group content in accounts and then to redirect those efforts”.
This is essentially the government effort: prohibit through the law unwanted ideas, then, distract, create smoke and mirrors, labels, and shiny objects, to pre-occupy the majority who might be tempted to listen to alternative views.
The zenit of liberalism and freedom has long passed and with nothing but the subjective and relativistic preference of government determining what will be acceptable thought, expect that with the principle of free speech now ceded that there will be further encroachment through the law on what you can say and think, where you can say and think it and in what manner you will be allowed to say and think it.
Don’t be surprised when you find that something you think ought to be protected under the rubric of free speech, democracy and liberalism, is no longer allowed. Read the room. Look around. The wind of change is here. And the more it changes, the more it remains the same. As Bertolt Brecht said ‘first they came for … then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’
If you disagree with ant-abortion protestors, migration policy protestors, Enoch Burke, whether you think them xenophobes or transphobes, it is in your own interest to defend their right to say what they say. You might feel a smug sense of satisfaction as you see your contemporaries punished for wrongthink and wrongspeech, but it is a pyrrhic victory. If it isn’t you, it will be your children, who will find themselves with wrong ideas.
And they may be the same as your ideas that you hold dearly and militantly today. But time marches on. You may find yourself progressive today but in twenty years’ time, who knows what will be acceptable thoughts and who knows technologies will be in place to ensure you toe the line.